The Halfway Point

We are halfway through fiscal year 2017. How much money has NIH spent on ME/CFS research so far this year, and where will we end up? The short version is: based on current spending, we are unlikely to hit the $15 million that people were hoping for. Hang on, because it’s a bit twisty turny.

To date, NIH has spent $2,861,839 on ME/CFS research in 2017.

That sounds terrible. But let’s dig into that number. So far, NIH has disbursed funding for the following eight grants:

However, there are six additional active grants that have not received money yet this year. I looked at the project start and end date, and when funding was issued in FY 2016. Based on that, I think these six grants are still due for money this year:

If those grants get the same amount of money this year as they did in FY 2016, then we can expect a further $2,202,000, bringing the 2017 total to $5,063,839.

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This is a problem. Why? Because this would be a 33% decrease from NIH funding in 2016 ($7,637, 591). In fact, it would be the lowest funding number since 2012.

There’s another problem buried in these data. Last year, NIH funded five new projects. This year, only one new project has been funded. New grants would help salvage the funding total from the basement, but will there be new grants?

There are the RFAs to look forward to. The Collaborative Research Center and Data Management Center RFAs should total $6,750,000 this year. Competition is going to be fierce, and it is inevitable that some applying groups will be disappointed.

But there is a hidden opportunity cost here. I am co-PI for one of the applying groups, and I have watched the effort it takes to put an application together, up close. It is an extraordinary amount of work. I think it is unlikely that any group applying for an RFA grant has also submitted other grant proposals this year. What about after the RFA applications are submitted? I think most researchers will wait for their application reviews (projected to be done in August) before writing new applications, because the reviewer feedback can shape new applications.

In other words, while the RFAs offer dedicated funding, there may be a drop in new investigator-initiated grants outside the RFA mechanism. The groups that do not get funded under the RFA will not have new funding in 2017 because they were not able to submit those non-RFA applications.

If this plays out as I have projected, here are the total numbers:

FY 2016 FY 2017 % Change
Regular Grants $7,637,591 $5,063,839 -34%
RFA Awards $0 $6,750,000 promised 100%
Total $7,637,591 $11,813,839 55%

We come out ahead. And the RFAs represent a long term strategy. It’s not just about that influx of $6.75 million this year. It’s about increasing collaboration and data sharing, and spinning off new grants. Hopefully, the $6.75 million to the Research and Data Centers will bring a greater return on investment than if that $6.75 million went into regular investigator-initiated grants.

There is one more speed bump looming on the road ahead: the federal budget. First, there is a (decreasing) chance that the government will shut down this Friday if Congress cannot pass a spending bill. That would bring everything to a screeching halt, including putting together the grant review panels for the RFA applications.

But beyond the shut down, NIH is facing the possibility of deep spending cuts. Nobody knows what is going to happen, and NIH is hedging its bets now. The RFAs include this qualifying language: “Future year amounts will depend on annual appropriations.” In RFAs issued over the last couple weeks, NIH has started saying:

Although the financial plans of NIMH and NINDS provide support for this program, awards pursuant to this funding opportunity are contingent upon the availability of funds. Funding beyond the first year will be contingent upon satisfactory progress during the preceding years and availability of funds.

It’s not over yet.

Note: I edited the first paragraph a couple hours after publishing in order to clarify where we can expect to end up by the end of the year.

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6 Responses to The Halfway Point

  1. Patricia Wilson says:

    Thank you Jennie Spotila for this spotlight on where things stand. We must pressure Congress and Sec. Price @ HHS to protect public investment in NIH and CDC.

    Also for your work in helping to prepare a grant. Before I became ill I was a fundraiser in human services, political activism, higher education and public broadcasting. Grantwriting is meticulous, timeconsuming and chancy work. A labor of love and dedication!

  2. Joe Landson says:

    So glad you are co-PI on one of the proposals! Hoping we can learn more about all the submissions eventually. Perhaps those not selected will attract private interest?
    Most of all hope you’re not wrecking yourself.

  3. Kathy D. says:

    Well, something good just happened and it may help us. Congress rejected the White House’s huge budget cuts for the NIH and instead added $2 billion more to its allocation for the year.
    Also, Brian Vastag posted at his Twitter page that he is currently at the NIH participating in a study of ME/CFS. He posted a photo of himself with Francis Collins, NIH director.
    So, it sounds like the wheels of progress, although slow, are grinding nevertheless.
    Someone reported on a ME/CFS call the other night that research at the NIH is coming up with some similar results to Ron Davis’ about changes in the mitochondria.

  4. jimells says:

    Will the RFA’s really receive funding this fiscal year? That seems unlikely to me, given that FY 2017 ends on September 30, and the fact that NIH moves about as fast as molasses in January.

    In any event, Collins seems to have won the public relations battle. I’m always amazed at how easy it is to calm angry bees with a bit of smoke…

    • Jennie Spotila says:

      It’s going to be tight. NIH said on a call with potential applicants that they were aiming for review in July/August and Council decisions in September, with Notices of Awards to go out immediately thereafter.

  5. kathy D. says:

    Well, there is a breakthrough at the NIH with this comprehensive study of ME/CFS going on now.

    Brian Vastag is the subject here and is undergoing many tests of all types. The NIH
    is studying several people who are ill, along with a group of health people.

    I think he is a hero for doing this.

    Here is the NBC News article about the study and his participation:

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